Most of us are no longer worried about traffic, parking, and whether the meeting room will be too hot or too cold. After weeks of social distancing, our home and work environments have merged. Video conferencing is now a daily event, but it comes with unexpected minefields. Will the dog go ballistic when the mail arrives? Will my housemates soak up all the bandwidth? Will my internet connection be stable? Will the kids barge in?
The biggest challenge may be the format itself. Funneling important conversations through a computer screen can leave you wondering whether you truly understood each other.
PII’s investigative team was using various video platforms to interview employees, students, and other witnesses long before COVID-19 was a household term, and we have some strategies to share.
- First impressions matter. The opening minutes of every interview or meeting are important. Give yourself lots of time to test your equipment before you are on screen. You want to show that you are in control.
- Think about your on-screen presence. Take care to create an effective on-screen environment. If you only dress professionally from the waist up, make sure your pajama bottoms don’t show. We are only half joking. To prove this point, here’s an article about a reporter who did a broadcast from home without knowing his bare legs were visible. Try to look at the camera in order to make eye contact. Use earphones to improve audio and create more privacy. Use “Speaker View” so the other person’s face appears largest on your screen and increases the sense that you are making eye contact.
- Take more time at the beginning. The person on your video call may be very nervous about what you might ask, and the artificial setting of a video conference only compounds that. Since there is no handshake to get things started, take a few minutes to make the person comfortable. Talk about what you’ll do if you lose the connection. Or explain that you’ll be taking notes, and they may hear tapping on the keyboard. Use the opening minutes to let a natural dialogue develop and build some rapport before you start asking difficult questions.
- Plan for breaks. According to an article on BBC.com, “Being on a video call requires more focus than a face-to-face chat [because] we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language.” Building breaks into long video interviews is essential. Plan for a five-minute break every hour.
- Don’t assume that anyone is alone. You should verify at the beginning with everyone on the conference that no one else can hear the conversation, especially if you need to cover confidential matters. Confirm that no one is recording the call by stating you are not recording and no one has your permission to record.
- Flag possible interruptions. Let everyone know in advance if your kids might come in the room, or if you’re expecting the doorbell to ring. Tell them you understand if they have similar problems on their end.
- Leave your other devices alone. Just as people know when you’re checking your watch during in-person meetings, they know if you’re texting during a Zoom call. Similarly, don’t fidget or play with items on your desk.
- Don’t rush it. It’s human nature to want to fill the silences. This seems especially true during video calls, because we can’t see what else is going on in the other person’s space. Are they hesitating to respond because they were distracted by something off-frame, or is it because they are thinking about their answer? Avoid rushing in here. Let the other person end the silence.
- It’s okay to ask it again. If someone’s answer seems garbled or non-responsive, take the time to clarify. Or ask the question again a few minutes later in a different way. Poor audio or unstable internet can lead to miscommunications on both sides. It’s crucial that you clear up any confusion.
- Be flexible. Be patient. We are all doing the best we can to cope with our new surroundings. If the person has to cut the call short when their baby cries, no problem. Reach out later to reschedule. All of us are quickly getting more comfortable with the technology and using it in ways we had not imagined a short time ago. Quarantini anyone?
Thanks to Vanessa Himeles and the other PII investigators who contributed to this blog. Stay tuned for another take on this topic when we blog about the challenges of conducting video interviews with those who have been exposed to trauma.